WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is once again trying to clarify what the long-established Miranda rights require the police to do, with the justices on Wednesday agreeing to decide whether officers can interrogate a suspect who said he understood his rights but didn’t invoke them.
The high court agreed to hear an appeal from Michigan prosecutors who had their conviction of Van Chester Thompkins thrown out by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because police kept talking to Thompkins after reading him his rights — despite Thompkins not verbally agreeing to invoke or withdraw his Miranda rights.
Thompkins was arrested for murder in 2001 and interrogated by police for three hours. At the beginning, Thompkins was read his Miranda rights and said he understood.
The officers in the room said Thompkins said little during the interrogation, occasionally answering “yes,” ”no,” ”I don’t know,” nodding his head and making eye contact as his responses. But when one of the officers asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for “shooting that boy down,” Thompkins said, “Yes.”
He was convicted, but on appeal he wanted that statement thrown out because he said he invoked his Miranda rights by being uncommunicative with the interrogating officers.
The Cincinnati-based appeals court agreed and threw out his confession and conviction.
“Thompkins’ persistent silence for nearly three hours in response to questioning and repeated invitations to tell his side of the story offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers: Thompkins did not wish to waive his rights,” the court said.
Michigan prosecutors said that would be a new addition to Miranda rights, and they want the Supreme Court to reinstate Thompkins’ conviction.
“Neither Miranda or its progeny prohibit interaction between an officer and a defendant after warnings have been given and acknowledged but before the invocation of rights,” Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox said in court papers.
The court will hear arguments in Thompkins’ case in 2010.
The Supreme Court has had to repeatedly clarify exactly what authorities have to do after reading a suspect his Miranda rights, which come from the 1966 decision requiring police to tell suspects they have the right to remain silent and the rights to have a lawyer represent them, even if they can’t afford one.
The Thompkins case is the second Miranda case the court will decide during this term. They will hear arguments on Dec. 7 on whether suspects have to be told that they have the right to have a lawyer present during questioning by police.
In that case, Kevin Dwayne Powell was given Miranda warnings that included telling him he had a right to a lawyer before questioning. Powell’s lawyers appealed, saying police did not tell him he had a right to have a lawyer during his police interrogation.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction, but the state wants the high court to throw out that decision.
The case is Berghuis v. Thompkins, 08-1470.